Pagodas on the Prairie

It's noon on the first day of dove season, and hunters in green and brown camouflage are packed into the Live Oak Restaurant & Bar on Highway Boulevard in Katy, recounting their morning's luck. The same scene could be playing out in almost any small Texas town -- a reassuring seasonal tradition, a gathering of the local tribe.

But change is afoot. Something very strange is arising on the prairie east of Katy, and it's not the little gray birds that brought hunters out en masse on this Friday. Live Oak owner Eric Hilton, for one, is puzzled by the phenomenon.

"What is it?" asks Hilton. "A religion or cult or something?"
Not exactly. But Hilton's confusion is understandable. Why anybody would be constructing a replica of the Tomb of Emperor Qin outside of Katy, Texas, is an ongoing source of bemusement to some townspeople.

The small-scale version of the resting place of the third-century B.C. Chinese ruler is just one planned attraction of Forbidden Gardens, a $20 million park and outdoor museum under construction on 85 acres of flat and fallow rice fields. Already in place -- and making for a somewhat eerie sight on the prairie -- are 8,000 clay soldiers arrayed in neat rows in a huge pit, half-life-size representations of the 8,000 terra cotta soldiers that were entombed with the Emperor Qin. During the emperor's epoch it was believed that soldiers should be sacrificed and buried with their leader to protect him on his heavenly voyage, but Qin apparently was a progressive sort and settled for representations of his sentinels.

Plans call for Forbidden Gardens to also feature replicas of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, along with multicolor ponds and waterfalls, a five-story pagoda and roving bands of musicians and singers. The complex will be similar to an existing one in southern China's Shenzhen province, where theme parks devoted to miniature replications of international attractions (such as Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore) are a hot draw for Chinese tourists.

If Forbidden Gardens is a puzzlement to its neighbors, the man whose vision of fun is unfolding on the prairie isn't visible enough to qualify as a puzzle. In fact, even the people who are working on Forbidden Gardens seem to know little about the man behind the complex, a reclusive Chinese-American businessman from Seattle named Ira Poon -- or, perhaps, Ira Pun.

"I've been working with him since the beginning of the year and I haven't met him yet," confesses Jane McMillian, a local publicist who's handling media inquiries about Forbidden Gardens. When asked whether Poon might be available for an interview, McMillian says no, that probably won't happen. It doesn't.

Robert Robinowitz, an architect for the project, says he initially was a bit skeptical about Poon's plans until he saw the pint-size pagodas and palaces of Forbidden Gardens beginning to arrive at the Port of Houston. (The 1:15-scale buildings are currently being stored in a warehouse on the Katy Freeway, awaiting a thaw in Chinese-U.S. relations so Chinese artisans can fly here for installation.)

Poon bought the former farmland -- with cash -- from the Resolution Trust Corporation in 1992. According to Harris County property records, he made the purchase under the name Ira Pon Hong Pun.

McMillian says that Pun is "the original Hong Kong version" of Poon's name. In America, people were incorrectly rhyming his name with bun, so he changed his name to the phonetically correct Poon.

Poon or Pun, the man has definitely kept a low profile in Seattle. His name hasn't appeared once in that city's Post-Intelligencer in the past ten years, and it didn't ring a bell with business reporters in the city.

McMillian, who stresses that Poon is a naturalized U.S. citizen, says Poon amassed his wealth through real-estate dealings in Hong Kong or Seattle. Hong Kong business interests have been sending their wealth offshore for years in advance of the British colony's return to mainland China in 1997. Much of it has been invested in tangible assets in Seattle, Vancouver and other Pacific Rim depots. That has triggered some resentment in Seattle, where the Hong Kong money is viewed as having inflated land values. Hong Kong buyers there frequently are very quiet about their acquisitions and have been known to Americanize their names so as not to attract attention.

In the case of Forbidden Gardens, however, the Houston area's gain is Seattle's loss, at least according to Isa Yin, vice-president of Green Ever Company Inc., a limited partnership created in 1992 to develop Forbidden Gardens. As Yin explained, in a faxed response to questions from the Houston Press: "... Due to Seattle's no-growth policy and city regulations, Poon decided to look at alternative locations. Houston was strongly recommended because it had fewer restrictions for new development, land prices were good and the climate was more stable throughout the entire year."

The prospect of relatively unfettered development that drew Poon to the prairie is something that angers hunting enthusiasts such as Eric Hilton, who worries that further encroachment on the rice fields will upset the delicate balance of nature that makes the area home to one of the largest concentration of geese in the nation.

"The only thing that makes any sense is that it's Chinese building on rice farm land," Hilton says.

But the location made perfect sense to Poon, according to his associates in Houston, who note that the new roadside attraction is rising about a mile north of the Grand Parkway exit on I-10, a convenient stop for travelers heading to and from Houston, San Antonio and Austin. And the Grand Parkway's path cuts south into Fort Bend County, one of the fastest growing counties in the nation.

Howard Jarrell, a tree surgeon who lives in the nearby Williamsburg Hamlet subdivision, fears that the coming of Forbidden Gardens is a sign that the long delayed and currently in limbo Westside Airport is also on the way.

"I think the government and city officials are up to something," Jarrell theorizes. "Why is this going up in the middle of a residential zone? Since they started building, the motels and hotels are going up. Unless there's an airport in the future, why here and now? Something is happening here us poor folks don't know nothing about."

Other area residents, though, are welcoming Forbidden Gardens as a source of jobs and money for the local economy.

Isa Yin says the builders of Forbidden Gardens hope it will attract 700 guests a day. "But one thousand guests would be even better," he faxes. Already, plans are being made for its grand opening, with outfits of khaki pants and red and purple polo shirts having been designed for employees. The uniforms will be color coordinated with the pagodas.

Poon's miniature version of the Forbidden City promises to be exacting, with 200 hand-carved and painted wooden buildings and 20,000 figurines. In the real Forbidden City, 24 emperors from the Ming and Quing dynasties (from the 14th century through the early 20th century) lived their lives behind walls, making only rare pilgrimages to the outside world.

His public relations representative in Houston says Poon himself may make a pilgrimage to the prairie early next year for the opening of his own little Forbidden City.

Then again, he may not.

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